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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Reading List: Energy Victory

Zubrin, Robert Energy Victory. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007. ISBN 1-59102-591-5.
This is a tremendous book—jam-packed with nerdy data of every kind. The author presents a strategy aiming for the total replacement of petroleum as a liquid fuel and chemical feedstock with an explicit goal of breaking the back of OPEC and, as he says, rendering the Middle East's near-monopoly on oil as significant on the world economic stage as its near-monopoly on camel milk.

The central policy recommendation is a U.S. mandate that all new vehicles sold in the U.S. be “flex-fuel” capable: able to run on gasoline, ethanol, or methanol in any mix whatsoever. This is a proven technology; there are more than 6 million gasoline/ethanol vehicles on the road at present, more than five times the number of gasoline/electric hybrids (p. 27), and the added cost over a gas-only vehicle is negligible. Gasoline/ethanol flex-fuel vehicles are approaching 100% of all new sales in Brazil (pp. 165–167), and that without a government mandate. Present flex vehicles are either gasoline/ethanol or gasoline/methanol, not tri-fuel, but according to Zubrin that's just a matter of tweaking the exhaust gas sensor and reprogramming the electronic fuel injection computer.

Zubrin argues that methanol capability in addition to ethanol is essential because methanol can be made from coal or natural gas, which the U.S. has in abundance, and it enables utilisation of natural gas which is presently flared due to being uneconomical to bring to market in gaseous form. This means that it isn't necessary to wait for a biomass ethanol economy to come on line. Besides, even if you do produce ethanol from, say, maize, you can still convert the cellulose “waste” into methanol economically. You can also react methanol into dimethyl ether, an excellent diesel fuel that burns cleaner than petroleum-based diesel. Coal-based methanol production produces greenhouse gases, but less than burning the coal to make electricity, then distributing it and using it in plug-in hybrids, given the efficiencies along the generation and transmission chain.

With full-flex, the driver becomes a genuine market player: you simply fill up from whatever pump has the cheapest fuel among those available wherever you happen to be: the car will run fine on any mix you end up with in the tank. People in Brazil have been doing this for the last several years, and have been profiting from their flex-fuel vehicles now that domestic ethanol is cheaper than gasoline. Brazil, in fact, reduced its net petroleum imports to zero in 2005 (from 80% in 1974), and is now a net exporter of energy (p. 168), rendering the Brazilian economy entirely immune to the direct effects of OPEC price shocks.

Zubrin also demolishes the argument that ethanol is energy neutral or a sink: recent research indicates that corn ethanol multiplies the energy input by a factor between 6 and 20. Did you know that of the two authors of an oft-cited 2005 “ethanol energy sink” paper, one (David Pimentel) is a radical Malthusian who wants to reduce the world population by a factor of three and the other (Tadeusz Patzek) comes out of the “all bidness” (pp. 126–135)?

The geopolitical implications of energy dependence and independence are illustrated with examples from both world wars and the present era, and a hopeful picture sketched in which the world transitions from looting developed countries to fill the coffers of terror masters and kleptocrats to a future where the funds for the world's liquid fuel energy needs flow instead to farmers in the developing world who create sustainable, greenhouse-neutral fuel by their own labour and intellect, rather than pumping expendable resources from underground.

Here we have an optimistic, pragmatic, and open-ended view of the human prospect. The post-petroleum era could be launched on a global scale by a single act of the U.S. Congress which would cost U.S. taxpayers nothing and have negligible drag on the domestic or world economy. The technologies required date mostly from the 19th century and are entirely mature today, and the global future advocated has already been prototyped in a large, economically and socially diverse country, with stunning success. Perhaps people in the second half of the 21st century will regard present-day prophets of “peak oil” and “global warming” as quaint as the doomsayers who foresaw the end of civilisation when firewood supplies were exhausted, just years before coal mines began to fuel the industrial revolution.

Posted at December 20, 2007 19:13